IT Management

The state of the CIO

Steve VanRoekel 102012Last year, on the 15th anniversary of the Clinger-Cohen Act becoming law, the Government Accountability Office released a rather gloomy status report on the agency CIO role. GAO found that most CIOs were responsible for just five areas of IT and information management out of 13, and they often lacked the authority to make key decisions about recruiting and IT investments.

Perhaps most discouraging, the report found that the average CIO spent just two years on the job before packing up and moving on. The message was clear: The CIO role was fraught with challenges, and it was a thankless job.

But in recent interviews with several former agency CIOs and current U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel, a more optimistic assessment emerged. The officials say today’s cadre of CIOs are more resilient and empowered, and many are sticking around to make meaningful changes and exercise real authority.


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For years, the wry joke was that CIO stood for Career Is Over. Obstacles remain, but signs now point to CIOs morphing into steadfast drivers of agency missions who view IT as a strategic asset.

Identity crisis

It’s not all optimism, of course. The GAO report spurred discussions about whether today’s CIOs are actually doing what the law requires and what authorities they need to most effectively support agency missions amid tougher demands.

how cios spend their time“If you go line by line, the act has been pretty effective,” VanRoekel said. But he acknowledged that there is room for improvement when it comes to ensuring that CIOs have a seat at the table with top officials. That is “something we would want to work on with the agencies.”

In 2011, the Office of Management and Budget issued revised guidance on the role of the agency CIO. Paul Brubaker, who helped write the Clinger-Cohen Act as an aide to then-Sen. William Cohen in 1996, was less than thrilled. The OMB memo amounted to expecting the CIO to be “the chief geek rather than the government modernization guru,” Brubaker and Mark Forman, the first administrator of OMB’s Office of E-Government and IT, wrote in a commentary for FCW in September 2011.

Brubaker, who is now president of technology firm Silver Lining, was also unimpressed with how some agency CIOs fulfill their roles and said many still struggle to be included in the top management team.

“With very few exceptions, the CIO has never been regarded as the departmental or agency key strategic adviser focused on the nexus of technology and agency mission and business processes as envisioned by the Cohen division of the Clinger-Cohen Act,” he said.

Bob Woods, founder and president of Topside Consulting Group and a former federal IT official, acknowledged that implementation of the act hasn’t been smooth sailing. Clinger-Cohen gave CIOs legitimacy and relevance but far from enough of either. “You just can’t legislate importance into a job,” Woods said. “Some of the CIOs are quite effective, but on the whole, it’s a bit of a disappointment.”

“I don’t think Clinger-Cohen produced the change we hoped it would,” he added. “It might still happen, but the change is still incumbent on the individual. The act meant to give the CIO more clout, but in its worst case, it turned CIOs into bureaucrats, gatekeepers for the paperwork.”

Many CIOs have abandoned operations and direct mission support and are now content with enterprise architecture documents and the like, he said. “I just don’t think that’s enough,” Woods said. “You don’t really get the license to speak in policy terms if you can’t run a basic operation. If I can’t get a laptop delivered in less than two months, I don’t care how good your strategic plan is.”

But VanRoekel said CIOs possess business acumen and recognize IT as a strategic asset. “Part of my job is to help move the needle…from discretionary to strategic, [from] viewing IT as an ability to check your BlackBerry for e-mails or to call the help desk when your computer doesn’t work versus thinking about how we solve national priorities,” he said.

Business savvy aside, CIOs must build credibility by understanding their organization, said Vance Hitch, former CIO at the Justice Department and currently senior adviser in Deloitte’s federal practice. The CIO’s personality plays a vital role as well. “If you’re somebody people go to for advice, that helps,” Hitch said.

Under Clinger-Cohen, CIOs are supposed to report to an agency’s top leader, but they often report to the chief financial officer or the chief management officer instead, Hitch said.

“The farther away and the less time and direct connection there is to the agency head, the less power the person has,” he said. “You have to use your personality and power of persuasion as opposed to having a position to rely on that will let you get things done quickly and cut through things.”

However, the CIO title does lend some clout. “It’s a difficult job, so having the ‘chief’ part in there is pretty darn important,” Hitch said. “Sometimes, every little bit helps. If you don’t have all the budget [authority], at least you have policy authority.”

Karen Evans, former administrator of OMB’s Office of E-Government and IT and former CIO at the Energy Department, agreed. “You can’t have everybody in charge,” she said. “When you look at the legislation, the person who’s held accountable within a department isn’t the bureau CIO, it’s the departmental CIO.”

During her time at DOE, the CIO title was exclusively designated to her, said Evans, who is now a partner at KE&T Partners. “We rescinded everybody else using the title CIO. What the secretary said to all the information technology people and the component CIOs was that ‘there is only one departmental CIO, and she will be accountable to me.’”

Bringing the role into focus

There is also the risk of confusion among senior agency officials who aren’t familiar with the goals of Clinger-Cohen. As Brubaker explained, some leaders “expect the CIO to fix the BlackBerry or get them an iPad, and the CIOs, eager to please, attempt to oblige, forever dooming their role in the eyes of the leadership as ‘chief geek.’”

Nevertheless, CIOs have clear guidance from OMB, and executive orders spell out their duties. As Hitch put it, CIOs’ areas of responsibility “are fairly well known in the CIO community.”

“I get that an agency may not have read the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, but you’re not going to find too many people with a good understanding of business who don’t know what a CIO is,” said Linda Cureton (pictured), who as NASA’s CIO has helped lead several of the government’s high-profile technology efforts. “Maybe they don’t know what a CIO can do for them. It’s not an issue about the law, it’s a business issue: What do CIOs do for any organization?”

At the national level, the CIO’s role and its relationship to the chief technology officer position have been made quite clear in a way that differs from the situation at many agencies. VanRoekel likened his collaboration with U.S. CTO Todd Park to “pretty much a Venn diagram; we’re focused on internal changes within the government and our expertise.” VanRoekel holds statutory responsibility for federal IT spending and policy setting while Park’s attention is focused mainly on the technology and policies the federal government wants to push to Silicon Valley and the high-tech industry.

To drive change inside the government, VanRoekel said, both budget and policy authority are needed, as well as the ability to inspire people internally and set up programs that interface with private industry. “At the end of the day, we own the mission as much as the agencies do,” he added.

For VanRoekel, his job means striking a careful balance between inspiring and pushing. The inspiring aspect involves getting people excited about new initiatives, while the push component relates to policies, budget, coaching, and issuing guidance and memos.

It’s far from an individual effort and more about joining forces with CIOs governmentwide to establish target areas as a community, he said.

Initiatives such as the Digital Government Strategy and portfolio rationalization had elements VanRoekel said he pushed for, but ultimately, “I knew I had a crucial mass of people to go and get them done and operationalize that stuff,” he said.

Dave McClure, associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, echoed VanRoekel’s assessment of the role CIOs can play and the impact they have already had. “We wouldn’t be talking about open data and data analytics if we didn’t have CIOs around,” McClure said. “The mission value of IT is much more broadly recognized at all levels.”

Standout CIOs

Starting with Vivek Kundra and now VanRoekel, the federal CIO has dominated the spotlight and shaped perceptions of what an agency CIO should be. Observers say certain CIOs at the agency level, such as the Veterans Affairs Department’s Roger Baker and GSA’s Casey Coleman, have emerged as forces to be reckoned with at least in part because of their budget authority.

With GSA’s recent move to centralize its IT control under the CIO, Coleman will have more authority, and “now the heat’s on,” said Woods, who has advised Coleman on strategic issues.

“The remark ‘be careful what you ask for’ comes to mind,” he said. “I think she’s played it well internally by not making a power grab but let it work its way through logically. She and [Baker] have an impact on the organization they’re in, even if you don’t agree with all the impact.”

Coleman “may not have a budget that’s equivalent to Roger Baker’s or [Department of Homeland Security CIO] Richard Spires’, but in terms of value on the dollar, she’s got to be mentioned,” said Ira Hobbs, former CIO at the Treasury Department and vice chairman at large for the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council.

The most influential CIOs tend to be those who have been around longer. “If you lasted and have been successful over a period of time, it tends to bring with it a certain credibility,” Hitch said.

Even the short tenures highlighted in GAO’s report are not necessarily the case among current CIOs. Baker has been at VA for four years, while Spires has been at DHS for three years. Coleman’s tenure as GSA’s CIO is now in its fifth year, and she previously spent three years as CIO at the agency’s Federal Acquisition Service.

NASA CIO Linda Cureton

After a stint as CIO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Cureton was appointed the agencywide CIO in 2009. In the years since, she’s built a reputation as an innovative leader unafraid of embracing new technologies.

When news broke about her appointment as NASA’s CIO, John Slye, a principal analyst at market research firm Input, told FCW that Cureton would serve the agency well because she “already has instant credibility in the organization.”

Being a CIO requires “more than a seat at the table. You have to have a voice that’s being heard, being asked,” Cureton said.

“There’s a strategic alignment to the mission that the CIOs struggle with when they’re more known as the IT guru, the person to complain to about BlackBerrys and say, ‘Why can’t I get an iPhone 5?’” she added.

She stressed the need for a variant of that question, one that rarely gets asked of the CIO: “How can our mission benefit from using the iPhone 5?”

“When, and unless, these things really start happening, I don’t think we’ve implemented Clinger-Cohen the way it was intended,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a law that can dictate that.”

The question of politics

In measuring success, nearly everyone interviewed for this story agreed there was no distinction between career and politically appointed CIOs. Career CIOs have the advantage of being able to start a longer-term program and see it through to completion, VanRoekel said, but politically appointed CIOs might feel the pressure to think about deliverables and tighter deadlines, which also has its advantages.

There was similar consensus on what CIOs need to thrive: support from the agency’s senior managers and their boss’ ear. “The highest-performing CIOs in government have a seat at the table with the rest of the leadership team,” VanRoekel said.

“CIOs are the universal translators between the business and the technology needed to meet the mission,” he said. “A great CIO can map how to bring information technology to the table to meet the mission better, faster and cheaper than before.”

Having control over the budget isn’t necessarily a must-have to make change happen, but it eases the process. As Hitch put it, “Unless you have budget authority and clear organizational lines of authority, it takes a lot longer to get things done than it should.”

Yet budget control is far from the be-all, end-all, VanRoekel and Evans agreed. “You don’t have to have every single dollar to make a determination,” Evans said.

The CIO of the future

The CIO role has changed drastically in the 30 years since it was invented, morphing from a technologist role into a management position. And although it will likely continue to evolve in unexpected ways, VanRoekel makes it clear what he doesn’t want the position to entail.

“What you never want to see is a person who’s chasing a shiny object and doing technology for the sake of technology,” he said. “My advice is to think about the results you want to see and work your way backward.”

CIOs’ increasing tenure is also worth more than a perfunctory glance. The longer a CIO stays, the better for the agency and the nation as a whole, said Christopher Smith, former Agriculture Department CIO and currently U.S. federal chief technology and innovation officer at Accenture.

Occasionally, CIOs are brought in for a shorter period of time, but “I think everybody would be much more satisfied with three- to five-year tenures,” he said. “That’s when you’re really starting to reap the fruits of the initial planning. In four to five years, you can refine and correct directions and, obviously, refine your strategy and visions even further.”

Forward-looking CIOs will focus on delivering business services faster and better and doing it in a highly cost-effective, secure manner, Smith said. “Those individuals who are focused on business service delivery are going to be able to drive a rapidly changing environment and better services for citizens,” he added.

There’s constant talk about how to manage the government more like a business and bring industry best practices to the government, and that bodes well for agency CIOs, Cureton said.

Smart corporations “wouldn’t dream of [saying] ‘I’m going to have to meet some FCC compliance and have a CIO there,’” she said. “They have CIOs because they really need IT to do what they need them to do.”

And as CIOs are able to escape the tech-support stereotype to focus on their agencies’ missions, those broader challenges bring excitement and a sense of reward, Evans said.

CIOs have been described as seeing “everything the way it is and everything the way it could be for the betterment of the agency,” she said. “If you’re successful in doing that and you can improve things, you get to see all that and everything that comes up through the business, and you say, ‘Wow, look at all these opportunities.’”

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Reader comments

Fri, Oct 19, 2012 IT Manager

Agency CIOs are rarely partner with the mission organizations to deliver technology that enhances the mission. Instead, they dictate to the mission based on a political box checking agenda to set themselves up for the next job. The mission suffers and has to find ways to work around the limitations. Few CIOs set agendas and a strategic IT direction based on mission needs. In industry, the profit motive drives the direction and decisions. Government CIOs do not have that fundamental driver such that they become a true business partner with the mission.

Tue, Oct 16, 2012 Cowboy Joe

(Chief Information Officer) "How do I lead, organize, and invest in information gathering, storing, movement and "exploitation" technologies ... including human performance ... to increase my overall organizational performance?" How dadgum hard of a concept is that? Seriously.

Mon, Oct 15, 2012

Let's face it. Many of the CIOs are more interested and put more effort interacting with industry than working to interact with their agency leadership beyond scheduled meetings etc.

Mon, Oct 15, 2012 AbandonAllHope DC

This confirms my observations at my agency. We've had four different CIOs in my time there. Every single one came from outside the Federal Government. When you give the least knowledgeable person in the organization the most authority and responsibility things are not likely to turn out well. And they haven't. Each CIO was more interested in power and ego gratification than problem solving. Each one spewed empty promises and outright lies until it was obvious to even the most non-technical people in the organization that they were not doing what the organization required. Except for the most recent one who hasn't had his downfall yet. I've lost all hope that a new CIO would be an improvement over the previous CIO. We've seen no trend towards more competent CIOs unless you considering distorting the truth a c ore competence of CIOs. If so, the current guy is brilliant.

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